Vitruvian race report (or how NOT to prepare for a half-ironman)

Vitruvian race report (or how NOT to prepare for a half-ironman)

The Vitruvian
Organiser: Pacesetter Events
Venue: Rutland Water, Leicestershire
Distance: 1900m swim - 85k bike - 21k run

I entered the Vitruvian at the very start of January. Inspired by Jo E’s race report of last year, I too wanted to do a half-ironman, and I wanted it to be this race. It sounded awesome.

I was meant to have other plans for this year but I had caught the triathlon bug. I just wanted to train hard and to see what my body was capable of doing... Careful what you wish for!

My training had been going great, then in May everything got turned upside down. After close to 14 years together, my husband announced out of the blue that he didn’t love me anymore. No warning discussions, no explanations, he’d just decided he wanted to leave and that was that. As I desperately tried to make sense of what was going on, some family and friends suggested my triathlon training might be a factor. I stopped training. It didn’t matter though, he packed a bag and he was gone.

It was just brutal and I was completely distraught.

In June I started back to training, but with no appetite and a full on regular work load, energy levels were really low. JD was incredibly supportive and adjusted the training to suit what looked realistic for the day, nothing too challenging but just enough to keep me moving, keep a routine together. One particularly tough day, when I arrived at the pool side but was ready to about turn when I realised it was a time trial night, he said “tonight’s objective is just to get you in the water. Anything after that is a bonus”.

I went into a function mode, there were a lot of things to do as I tried to figure out how to handle the mortgages, bills, house renovations and I started down the legal road of obtaining a divorce. It was also just a very raw time – I was overwhelmed and exhausted with the shock, anger and humiliation of it all.

First weekend in June, the Fusion Ironman crew were having a practice session for the bike and run. I felt pretty weak from not eating or sleeping properly all week, and was still suffering from the anxiety attacks the night before, but wanted to take part. I force fed myself a bowl of porridge and set off, with a can of Red Bull and some jaffa cakes on the way. JD advised me just to do as much as I felt like. Two laps of the bike course would be the half-ironman distance, but it was fine for me to even do one. Once I started on the bike, it was great having something to focus on. Just keep turning the pedals… 1, 2, 3, 4. Bliss. It was torrential rain, I couldn’t feel my feet after about the first 30 minutes, but it didn’t bother me at all. I just kept saying to myself “This is for me”. I did the two laps, got completely dried off and changed, rubbed my numb feet until I regained some feeling and set off on the run. The first 10k was OK, if very slow. The second got tough, but I really wanted to see if I could do the distance. The last 6km were just painful: shoulders, feet, just about every muscle in my legs hurt. But it was such an easier kind of hurt to handle, and in a twisted way I enjoyed keeping going. I kept having to walk, which was frustrating and so slow, but eventually finished the run distance. At the finish, JD looked at me in horror and sped off to get me a Mars bar and a drink. I hadn’t really thought about nutrition before this, and hadn’t even finished my one bottle of Go on the bike.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was a much needed confidence boost and at least I now knew I could do the distance.

Training continued through July at a slow pace. It was tricky to fit in with everything else, particularly now having sole responsibility for a 1 year old Labrador, who also needed his ~2 hours of exercise a day.

Sometimes it was great to swim, to have this one hour of the day that was (in theory at least) so simple. At a time of feeling utterly crap about myself, just expelling my energy into the stroke and finishing the odd 100m set in good time was a real buzz. Often it was too hard to focus though and I found breathing was very difficult. It was frustrating, and a bit embarrassing, to have to stop at the end of a lane to wipe tears away or, on bad days, experience more of an anxiety attack and have to just leave. My lane mates were very patient, gave me the space, and were encouraging when I did do anything remotely well.

I found running left me so open to my own thoughts that it became really difficult to complete long runs. I just had frustrating sessions of constantly being stopped in my tracks by my emotional distress, which was just draining.
Cycling was a lot easier, and I started to practice actually eating and drinking on the long rides.

Pace had slipped right back, but at least the training gave me a structure for the week and really helped me think about myself, what I needed and what I wanted.

I had aimed to do the Strathclyde standard race, and had family over to support me. I didn’t feel very prepared but tried to talk myself into doing it. My ex had arranged to pick up a batch of his belongings from the house the same day as the race. In the end it threw me, and I didn’t even turn up for the race.

At the end of July, after a particularly bad week, I decided some serious retail therapy was in order and bought a (ridiculously too good for me) Cervelo P2C, complete with Zipp wheels. What the hell, I would do the Vitruvian! I had 5 weeks to get myself together. My sister, in Ireland, offered to look after the dog. JD wrote me a programme, and training finally started to come together.

3 weeks to go. I had a brilliant ride out at Loch Lomond on the new bike. On my cool down, thankfully going slowly along a quiet road, I lost my balance and splatted onto the ground. Nothing too serious, but a sore head and really sore calf. I couldn’t walk on the leg the next day and was terrified I’d torn something. I saw my physio and he did some gentle work on the calf, but told me not to run or cycle for the next week. “Can I still do Vitruvian?” I asked. ‘Yes, hopefully’, he said, provided I completely rested for the week, and didn’t Google the name of the injury he thought it was. After a follow up session at the end of the week, he gave me the go ahead to try a 20 min run. If that went OK, I could proceed as before.

2 weeks before the race, I got tipped off that the excellent contract I’ve been on for over a year, is about to end. We’d get official word within days, certainly by mid September I would lose my routine, my work mates and my steady income. I was absolutely gutted. I should be terrified about the financial implications, but I decide to postpone worrying about all that till after the race. This coincided with a week where my body had decided it was time to really just grieve and, almost uncontrollably, I cried and cried and cried.

I read the chapter in ‘Going Long’ about ‘Training the Mind’. Maybe if my body isn’t quite prepared, I can at least get my mind to help, right? I try the exercise in visualising part of the race, trying to reinforce a positive outcome. I picture myself starting the swim, I start off in a nice smooth, steady stroke, breathing is calm, water is warm… uh oh, now there’s a boat in front, with a huge propeller, pulling me in, it rips my body into tiny pieces, the water has turned red… Ugh. This isn’t helping.

I’d already changed my registration for the event to use my maiden name, but as I read the race notes I realised I have no race license or photo ID to back this up. There’s no time for a passport change, and Triathlon Scotland are all out of membership cards. I ask them to write me a letter, covering the name change, just in case.

One week to go, I headed out for my last long cycle, unable to stomach breakfast, I drove out to Loch Lomond, tears still streaming down my face the whole way. I sat slumped in the car for about 30 minutes, trying to muster some motivation... flick, flick, flick through songs on the ipod. Even Beyonce isn’t helping. I realise my ex is staying only 5 minutes away and consider calling him: I’m aching for a hug. I hover over his name for a few minutes. I don’t actually want to speak to him, or see him, so can’t see how the rent-a-hug plan would pan out. I try to switch my thoughts to the race, and instead I text JD and arrange a meeting.

I got out of the car, all setup and started off on the bike. I felt no more in the mood for cycling, on my own, in the wind and rain. I felt miserable and just stopped after only 50 meters, packed back up and drove away. At the first roundabout, I had a little argument with myself and turned around. Out and ready again, I sat off. I tried to sing myself along, but I was too drained and the weather was too rough, that I was wobbly on the bike. After about an hour I decided it just wasn’t safe and headed back. Not ideal practice, but it would have to do.

I decided to go out for the night out with the GTC folk. It was just what the doctor ordered: great company, good laughs and plenty of drink! The experienced Ironmen gave me some tips: keep your own nutrition but above all remember to stay hydrated. I felt in awe of their achievements and uplifted by their enthusiasm. I should probably go home, but maybe there’s time for one more French Martini… after all, they did say stay hydrated, and these people know their stuff!

Next day, feeling a little the worse for wear, but nothing a Red Bull won’t fix, I have my last long run. For the first time in months, without an iPod to distract me, the run goes well. I have my race strategy meeting with JD. I tell him I’m slightly scared that I’ll be so slow I’ll be stopped at the swim, failing to meet the cut off times. He assures me that I’ve done the work, that he wouldn't let me do it if he didn't think I was ready. We write down a plan of action for the day before and race day itself, but top of the list is simply ‘push the start button’. It’s the final confidence boost I needed.

Two days to go. What else do I need to do? I realise I haven’t yet had to change a tyre and how awful it would be to have to learn mid-way through the race. Willy Bain, bless him, gives me a crash course and let’s me sit and practice, until he gives a nod of approval. I’m now as ready as I’ll ever be.

Day before the race: I drive down to Rutland with Morag. We have a great laugh on the way, and feel relaxed and happy.
At registration I’m nervous that my name will be a problem. I say my number, the woman finds my name, ticks me off the list, I hand over my race license, heart rate rising… and it is indeed a problem. I explain that the license is in my married name but I want to race in my maiden name. “No. No. You’ll have to change it.” Feeling like a school girl, I say “but… but… I have a note”. Thankfully she reads the letter from Triathlon Scotland, gives me a little smile, and I’m allowed to race in my own name.

We do a recce of the course. As we drive over the famous ‘Rutland Ripple’, Morag says “That’s not a hill! That’s barely worth mentioning”. I’m delighted to be in the company of such a relaxed and confident athlete. I hope I agree with her assessment in the morning.

Finally get to my hotel in Leicester at 9pm. Just enough time to eat and get the last essential preparations done: some fake tan and nail polish to match my bike! (Thanks to Morag for that tip!)

I only manage two hours sleep – disturbed by picturing myself falling on the bike, with deep gashes all down my right arm and leg, cut to the bone, blood pouring down my body.

Race day.
Up at 3am. The reception staff heat up the porridge I’ve brought with me for breakfast, once I’ve signed a disclaimer that the Marriott would not be responsible for any consequences following the provision of my warm porridge. That gives me a chuckle and I set off to pick Morag up. Music blaring, empty roads, I zoom along and beat the sat nav’s predicted arrival time. I take that as a good sign!

We arrive at 5am, and get all our kit down to transition. It was freezing, but the setup goes by quickly and we’re on the beach now, waiting.

Our swim starts as the sun is rising across the flat, warm water. It was just beautiful.

I’m a little nervous about the swim start, and keep myself to the edge, the good edge. I remember my physio’s words of wisdom for the swim “You’ll get kicked, you’ll get swam over, but you’ll be totally fine.” That scared me a little when he said it, but on the day, I was more than fine, I absolutely loved it. I kept relaxed, and felt like I was gliding through the water. I drafted a little on the first leg, then realised my drafter could sure kick, but not in a straight line, so I went my own way. I touched each buoy on the way round, pleased that, unlike many others, I wasn’t doing any extra distance. The swim was brilliant; I could have stayed there all day.

Set off on the bike and I could really notice the wind. I start getting buffeted about on the exposed flat road and try to steady myself. I rip open my first gel, a little too enthusiastically, and it goes all over my face, my hands, onto the bars, my knees. Ugh. I realise I’m one of those people that others mock at races – “all the gear, no idea”!

The road moves downhill, the gusts pick up, and as I’m picking up speed the bike is twitching like crazy. I feel like a 10 year old kid screaming to let me off the fairground ride. I think of my Pilates and try to muster any ounce of core strength to keep balanced. I grip on to the side bars for dear life. I am terrified.

I get to bottom of the hill, amazed that I’m still actually upright, but my arms and legs are trembling. I’m relieved to work slowly up the hill, and pleased to overtake a few people worse at using their gears than me.

I feel so vulnerable and scared I wonder: should I stop for a bit and gather myself? Should I let myself cry as I cycle, would that help? Should I just STFU and get on with it?

First lap down, it’s great to enter the turning point, hear the supporters cheer us on. The marshals are holding out water, bananas, and gels… I don’t dare reach for anything for fear of crashing into them.

2nd lap underway and I start getting hit by waves of my emotional pain, my chest tightens and it gets hard to breath. I remember my counsellor’s advice – don’t shut it out, just include it. So I say, out loud, “It’s just one thought. It’s just one thought.” And consciously make an effort to notice my other thoughts: “oh look at the clouds… how are my feet doing… ooh this is really smooth tarmac…” I try to focus on my power meter.

Back towards the downhills. I remember the line in ‘Going Long’ about the weather and say, out loud again like a loon, to the wind, ‘You can’t break me!’ Wind says ‘BOO!’ Oh shit, maybe you can, never mind.

I was meant to work the downhills, but in the end I apply my brakes. I resign myself to going slowly, but safely, around the course. I just want to finish.

It’s a peculiar experience being so slow on the bike. On the 2nd lap there was a whole chunk of time that I didn’t see a single other competitor, to the point that I wondered if I’d managed to take a wrong turn. The discarded gel packets reassured me I was still on course.

My nutrition plan: half a gel every half hour, few glugs of my energy drink every 15 minutes was a wonderful distraction. It was almost always nearly time to eat or drink.

Towards the end of the 2nd lap I see a woman at the side of the road, fiddling with a wheel. With my newfound expertise in this area, I shout to see if she needs anything, but she gives me a funny “no thanks you weirdo” look. Thankfully my 2 spare tubes remained unused.

I catch a glimpse of my red nails and finally have a wee smile. Nearly there…

I never thought I could look forward to running a half marathon so much.

The run
I come out of T2 and see Morag’s pink hat go by as she finishes her first lap of the run. Excellent, she must be doing really well. Only a few more hours for me to go…

I’m so relieved to be off the bike I didn’t feel any of the usual jelly legs. I realise this is probably just a sign that I didn’t work hard enough on the bike, but so delighted to be on my feet, on solid ground, I think to myself “I’m safe, nothing can harm me now”. Thinking the word ‘harm’ stirs my emotions up again, my breathing gets short, aaargh not again, not now! I focus on my feet hitting the ground, standing tall, hips forward. I picture Graeme Stewart running and imagine myself running in the same graceful style. My imagination was kind to me and it seemed to work, I felt great. I focused on my posture and sang (silently) to myself. I noticed I was going much faster than my plan, and had to really drop back, aiming to do the first 2km slightly slower than my standard pace.

First drinks station approaches, I remember my motto for the run – DON’T FUCKING WALK – so I grab a cup of the High 5 and try to drink it as I run off. It goes straight into my eye. Ugh, I’ll try again next station.

First 5km down, I still feel light and comfortable. I feel so good I wonder should I be going faster, but decide to stick to the pace I’m meant to do. Time isn’t important, I just want to finish, best stay steady. At around 15km I start to feel a few niggles, a bit more tired, and wonder… could they have moved the turning point? I can’t even see it in the distance. This bit is surely longer than 1km?!
The last 4 km I’m amongst all the other slower folk, who have started walking now. I remind myself DON’T FUCKING WALK, but actually I feel pretty good, I keep my thoughts in the present and I can see the lake curve round to the finish point in the distance, I start to hear the music and the cheers as other people finish.

As the final stretch approaches, my energy level surges and I run the most perfect (in my mind anyway) 200m to the finish. And then, the magic words blast over the loudspeakers: KEAVY MCMINN YOU ARE A VITRUUUVIAAAN!

It was emotional, but awesome.

I’m so grateful to have had the guidance and support of my coach, and the great advice and fun company of the people in Glasgow and Fusion Triathlon clubs.

I wouldn’t wish my kind of preparation on anyone, but some of the things I’ve learned are:
• It’s rough when your personal ambitions have a negative effect on someone else, but they’re worth holding on to
• Triathlon takes a lot out of you, but I reckon you get back tenfold what you put in
• Even if a lot of your training is solitary, it’s great to be part of a club. If you’re really lucky, be part of two ;)

p.s. Sorry for the emotionally long-winded race report, it was hard to separate the crazy build up to the race itself.

p.p.s There will be a 51cm Cervelo P2C for sale now if anyone’s interested!

(Originally posted on Glasgow Tri Club forum)